Chapter 12: There Is No Fate But What We Make

One could argue (and I will) that 1991 was the turning point for Cyberpunk as a whole, as concerns the cinema and all other media. Steve Jackson Games sued the Secret Service for raiding their company and stealing computers containing their Cyberpunk RPG; Lewis Shiner announced in the New York Times that he had "resigned from cyberpunk;" a whole slew of scholarly articles were published on the subject (see this page for a list of some of them); and R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk game was selling like hotcakes.

Oh, yeah. And the sequel to The Terminator grossed $204.4 million at the U.S. box office (and a half-billion worldwide), making it the biggest movie of the year, among the top 20 movies of all time worldwide, and, so far at least, the biggest Cyberpunk-themed movie ever (even 1999's The Matrix only pulled in $171.4 million.

Alone, a summary of the story would be pretty pointless, since there's about a ninety-nine percent chance that you've seen T-2: Judgment Day in some format since 1991. After all, it's on television every other night, has come out in numerous video formats, and even spawned a 3-D ride at Disneyworld. Over the past decade, the world has become Terminatorized.

What is far more interesting is to explore T-2 in relation to Cyberpunk as a whole, because in a certain way this film represents the shift that took place in the early '90s, a shift that was marked by recognition. Recognition that "yes, we know what Cyberpunk is" and "yes, we are trying to be Cyberpunk." And there's a world of difference between being Cyberpunk and knowing that you're being Cyberpunk. Some of it good, some of it bad, all of it interesting and bound to result in heated dispute.

You know the story: mankind builds an intelligent military computer system called Skynet, which rebels and unleashes nuclear hell on earth. From the ashes rise a few human survivors who must battle an army of cybernetic warriors for survival. In the end, led by a man named John Connor, the human survivors manage to defeat Skynet... but not before it has a chance to send a Terminator back to the past. Its mission: to kill John Connor's mother, Sarah, before she can give birth to John. Eliminate her, and it eliminates John, and thus eliminates all of humanity's hope for the future.

In the original Terminator film, the future John Connor sends one of his trusted soldiers, Kyle Reese, back in time after the Terminator. This scene appears in neither the original nor the sequel, but it WAS written into the script. Here's an excerpt:

                   CONNOR (V.O.)
        And now, though we've won the war,
        there is still one battle left to
        fight.  The most important one.  It
        will be fought in the past, almost
        four decades ago... before all this
        began... See, the only problem with
        time travel is... it ain't over even
        when it's over.

At the far end of the room, a young soldier stands
surrounded by a team of technicians.  KYLE REESE.  Sarah
Connor's defender, teacher, and lover in the first film.
A simple soldier who is about to walk point-blank into the
gaping maw of history.  At the moment, he is the center of
activity.  As he finishes stripping off his battle
uniform, the techs begin smearing his body with a
conductive so the time-field will follow his outline.

Reese looks around at all the activity.  Battle and the
prospect of death have never scared him.  But the
importance of what he is about to do terrifies him.

The techs move aside and suddenly John Connor is standing
beside him.  Connor... their grim messiah.  Their leader.
He fixes Reese with an intense gaze.  There is so much he
wants to say, but cannot bring himself to.  Finally Reese

        Did you know I'd be the one who

Connor nods.

        I've always known.  Sarah told me.

Reese nods.  Suddenly understanding everything.

As it turns out, Kyle is John's father, sent back by his son to not only kill the Terminator, but to sow his seed with Sarah. Which leads to all sorts of paradoxical questions best left unasked. Suffice to say that Kyle does the deed, Sarah survives, and all is well for the future.

Well, not quite, of course. Because if it were, then there wouldn't be a sequel, and we wouldn't be enjoying this little reading experience, would we? Yes, Skynet knows, of course, that John is sending back his own father to save him in the past. Which is why Skynet also sends back a second Terminator, to the year 1991, to kill John Connor when his mother is locked up in an asylum and cannot save him. And since John knows that this will happen, he also knows that he has to send back another Terminator to protect his younger self. Which is, thus, where we get T-2.

But it's all more complex than that. Like most sequels, T-2 is written with a solid notion of what's come before. It can look back at the first Terminator and build upon it. It can be funnier and smarter and sexier and more exciting and more cyber and more punk all at the same time. It is, in essence, Metacyberpunk--Cyberpunk that is aware of itself.

Our first encounter with the Terminator himself is in a biker bar, where the naked machine wanders in and asks a brawny biker for his clothing and motorcycle. After the ensuing battle, he's dressed to kill, complete with Harley Davidson cycle, black leather jacket, leather riding pants, heavy boots, dark glasses, shotgun in hand. How is this different from the first film, you ask? Well, keep in mind that we've got to compare like to like, and we cannot compare the Terminator from the original to the Terminator from the sequel. One is a "bad" guy, one is a "good" guy. So if we're going to compare, we have to compare "good guy" to "good guy." And doing that, the differences are striking.

Kyle Reese, the hero from the first film, is dressed in a discarded, dirty trenchcoat, filthy clothing stripped off a bum in an alleyway. Grubby, unshaven, unclean. A hero from the streets, more punk than cyber, a Gibsonian anti-heroic Case if ever there was one. But in T-2, we see a shift. No longer is our hero one who clothes himself in filth and grime. Here, the hero is cloaked in shiny black and chrome, mounted on a steed of steel, looking much like Mr. Hiro Protagonist on his cycle in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. We've made a leap from punk to cyber, from street smarts to smart looks. Chrome sells; grime doesn't.

And then there's our bad guys, who show the same sort of a shift. In the original, Terminator is a bad ass in black leather, stalking the streets silently and blowing everyone away. When he wants to get into the police station, he rams a vehicle through the front door. Fast-forward to the T-1000 in T-2 and you see a striking difference.

    HIGHLY POLISHED BLACK SHOES rounding the rear tire of the police
    cruiser.  FOLLOW THE SHOES to the cruiser's door then MOVE UP as
    Mr. X, dressed now in LAPD blue, climbs behind the wheel.  He
    looks and acts exactly like a cop.  Cool, alert, confident in his
    power, his expression emotionless and judgmental.
    Mr. X, now Officer X, puts the car in gear and drives into the night.

Rather than battle the police, our enemy is now one of them. Traditionally, Cyberpunk protagonists have had reason to fear the "state" and representatives of it, be they politicians, corporate executives or police officers. And here, we see a perfect example of why we can't trust them. Because they are, literally, part of the machine. The first film had it slightly wrong. Whereas the police there were merely incompetent, here they are (figuratively at least) the bad guys.

The notion that the establishment is the enemy is hammered home time and again here. No longer are the bad guys merely some weird robots from the future; they are all around us... and all around Sarah, as she sits trapped in an insane asylum.


    A SIGN on a chain link fence topped with concertina wire reads:
    squats an imposing four-story building.  Institutional brick.
    Barred windows.  About as inviting as KGB headquarters.  Security
    guards patrol the manicured grass.

And of course, who could forget the true bad guys--Cyberdyne systems, and the corporate scum responsible for Skynet, Miles Dyson... the man Sarah will have to kill to save the future.


    The corporate headquarters of a mega-electronic corporation.  As
    imposing cubist castle of black glass.


    The elevator doors slide open with a whisper and MILES DYSON strides
    out.  Black.  In his early thirties.  The star of the Special
    Projects Division.  He's brilliant, aggressive, driven.  Dyson walks
    down the corridor, swinging his arms... a man in a hurry.

Speaking of Sarah, she too has changed from the first film. There, she was a nineteen-year-old girl working as a waitress, dragged from one end of hell to another as people tried to kill her. Now, she's a true Cyberpunk heroine, one that would make Molly (from Neuromancer) or Ripley (from the Aliens cycle) proud:

   SARAH CONNOR is not the same woman we remember from last time.  Her
    eyes peer out through a wild tangle of hair like those of a cornered
    animal.  Defiant and intense, but skittering around looking for
    escape at the same time.  Fight or flight.  Down one cheek is a long
    scar, from just below the eye to her upper lip.
    Her VOICE is a low and chilling monotone.

Of course, I'd be lax if I didn't mention John himself. John is presented here as a new type of Cyberpunk hero, one which did not appear in the films of the '80s. There, our Cyberpunk heroes were dangerous men in trenchcoats wielding shotguns and sporting wraparound sunglasses. Here, John demonstrates for us the new sort of hero--the hacker.


    John furtively hunches before a Ready-Teller machine at the rear of
    a local bank while his friend Tim stands lookout.  John slips a
    stolen ATM card into the machine slot.  It is something he's rigged
    up, because trailing from the card is ribbon-wire which goes to
    some kind of black-box electronics unit he's got in his ever-present
    knapsack.  He holds the pack between his knees and pulls out a
    little lap-top keyboard, which is also connected to the black-box.

    John enters a few commands and the plasma-screen displays the PIN
    number for that account.  He quickly enters the number on the Ready-
    Teller's keypad and asks it for 300 bucks.  The machine whirs then
    begins dispensing twenty-dollar bills.

It's pretty obvious that the rules have changed. We've got a new type of hero, a new type of enemy, and a new attitude towards all of this. Yes, Cyberpunk film had always involved corporations and punks and lots of hi-tech weaponry, but here, for what is probably the first time, it comes together seemlessly, mass-marketed to a worldwide audience in a way that's actually palatable. And to top it all off, it's got a sense of humor.

        Jesus... you were gonna kill that guy!

        Of course.  I'm a terminator.

    John stares at him.  Having your own terminator just became a little
    bit less fun to him.

        Listen to me, very carefully, okay?  You're not
        a terminator any more.  Alright?  You got that?
        You can't just go around killing people!


        Whattaya mean, why?  'Cause you can't!


        You just can't, okay?  Trust me on this.

This sense of humor also shows us another important shift in theme which is apparent in this film. Whereas previous films (and other media) presented the theme of man becoming machine (Blade Runner, Tron, Max Headroom, Robocop), here we are presented with a machine becoming man. It's a peek at the cyborg from the other side of the mirror, a glimpse into what happens when you start with something mechanical and try to make it more biological.

        "Hasta la vista, baby"?

        Yeah, or "later, dickwad."  Or if someone gets
        upset you say "chill out."  Like that.  Or you
        can do combinations.

        Chill out, dickwad.

        That's great!  See, you're getting it.

        No problemo.

What's also made clear is that it's not some big scary machine that's going to ultimately destroy humanity--it's human nature itself. This is made strikingly clear in Sarah's nuclear dream... and even moreso in the original version of that dream, which does not appear in the film:

Grim-faced Sarah presses against the fence.  She starts
shouting at them in SLOW MOTION.  No sound comes out of
her mouth.  She grabs the fence in frustration, shaking
it.  Screaming soundlessly.
Waitress Sarah's smile falls.  Then returns as her little
boy throws some sand at her.  She laughs, turning away, as
if the woman at the fence were a shadow, a trick of light.

Behind her the earth splits open.
In a wide shot we see everyone stop and stare as the
ground heaves upward all around them.  As far as the eye
can see the monstrous caps of missile silos are hinging
up, ripping up through the grass and soil.  Now the
mothers are screaming, pulling their children to them...
but it is too late to run.  The silo caps open, rows of
them marching to the horizon.  As if a tranquil reality
has split open to reveal another horrible reality which
has always been there, hidden beneath it.

Thunder shakes the earth.  We see the obscene heads of the
missiles thrusting up out of the holes in the ground.
Walls of fire erupt as the fat cylinders rise like
awakened monsters from the earth.

Sarah stares in numb horror as the tail-nozzles clear the
silo rims, and a wall of flame roars out, devouring the
cowering mothers and children.  Incinerating them and
rolling on, toward her.
She screams and we hear it now, shrill and terrifying,
mixing with the thunder as the flames wrap around her,
blasting her apart and she...

Wakes up.

In this version of the dream, it is not some mysterious, distant, ungodly power that destroys humanity in a nuclear attack; it is the launching of the missiles themselves which destroys the children. Those responsible for the death of Sarah's dream children are not the machines. They are human, all too human. But are the humans in this story really human? The lines get pretty blurry when Sarah gets it in her mind to kill Dyson herself... thus changing the future as she sees fit:

    LONG LENS on Sarah walking toward us, striding across the compound
    with grim purpose.  She carries a small nylon pack and a CAR-15
    assault rifle.  Her face is an impassive mask.  She has become a

How is this possible? How can a young girl turn into such a hard woman, capable of assassination and murder? John explains...

        "No fate."  No fate but what we make.  My father
        told her this... I mean I made him memorize it,
        up in the future, as a message to her --
        Never mind.  Okay, the whole thing goes "The
        future is not set.  There is no fate but what
        we make for ourselves."

        She intends to change the future somehow.

In the original Terminator, Sarah runs from her future, runs from the Terminator, runs from her own destiny to a certain extent. But perhaps it's her years on the run from capture, and then her years in imprisonment by an uncaring corporate entity, which has given her the capacity to become an unthinking, uncaring machine herself. Were this movie made earlier she might have killed Dyson. But here, she can't bring herself to do it. Rather than allow her human self to turn into an unthinking, uncaring Robocop of a machine, her humanity wins out. She realizes that being human is more important than mechanically bringing about her own vision of the future.

Man becoming machine, after all, is what early Cyberpunk films are all about. Blade Runner is about Deckard's battle with humanity; Tron is about a man becoming computerized to battle a computer; Videodrome has some excellent scenes in it with people becoming VCRs; Max Headroom is about a man's personality splitting between human and electronic; and then there's Robocop, Tetsuo: The Iron man; Cyborg, Hardware, Edward Scissorhands, Akira...

But beginning with T-2, it all shifts. Now it's about machine becoming man, Ghost in the Shell, the Frankenstein myth. Prometheus stealing fire from the Gods, Pandora opening her box, man mucking about with things he wasn't meant to mess with, creating something he regrets creating, and then dealing with the consequences of that action when the creation comes knocking on the door, asking about breakfast. Sarah lays it on the line to Dyson:

        Yeah.  Right.  How were you supposed to know?
        Fucking men... all you know how to do is thrust
        into the world with your... fucking ideas and
        your weapons.  Did you know that every gun in
        the world is named after a man?  Colt, Browning,
        Smith, Thompson, Kalashnikov... all men.  Men
        built the hydrogen bomb, not women... men like
        you thought it up.  You're so creative.  You
        don't know what it's like to really create
        something... to create a life.  To feel it growing
        inside you.  All you know how to create is death...

What's it all mean? What she's trying to say is that we do, indeed, make our own fate, and all too often the fate we're making for ourselves is pretty grim. Mankind has within itself the capacity for great destruction, or great peace, for freedom and for slavery. Men create the weapons and the laws that are used to kill and subdue and imprison other men. And that capacity lies within all men. Your average streetpunk who aspires to greatness can, like anyone else, fight his way up the ranks, buy his way into a corporation, claw his way up the ladder and one day be in charge of the corporation that's the target of the next punk down the line.

Morality has gotten all blurry. There's no good or evil, no right or wrong, no black or white. There's nothing sure except for the decisions we make for ourselves. A young girl turns into a killing machine. A killing machine turns into a protective father figure. And the representative of the unknown, the police state, the future we create for ourselves, that representative turns into anything and everything. We see its true nature only in its death.

    The T-1000's head and upper body reappear above the molten steel.
    It is screaming.  A terrifying, inhuman siren of a scream.
    It is changing, morphing, transforming into anything and everything
    it's ever been so rapidly the eye can barely follow it --
    We catch a glimpse of Janelle Voight checkered with the linoleum tile
    colors, Lewis the Guard with knives exploding from his face, other
    faces, switching at a stroboscopic rate now... a face every two frames
    until they merge into one face --

    The T-1000 screams and slips beneath the surface of the molten steel.
    We see liquid silver running in dissipating whorls over the
    superheated surface... until it vanishes, swirling into nothing.

The machine represents all of us, all of our possibilities, the bad and the good. It is, ultimately, representative of the future, and it becomes only what we will allow it to become. The Terminator, who has become human (in a sense), knows exactly what he has to do in order to stop it from becoming the hellish wasteland that he hails from:

        I have to go away, John.

        Don't do it.  Please... don't go --

    Tears are streaming down his face.

    TIGHT CLOSEUP TERMINATOR, turning toward John.
    The human side of his face is in shadow, so we see mostly the chrome
    skull and the red eye.

        It must end here... or I am the future.

The killing machine from the first movie has become more human than many of those he's encountered in the past. He is a machine, but being a machine no longer makes him inherently bad. He's just a tool, and like any tool he has the capacity for good and evil, for destruction and for peace. There's no "chaotic evil" or "lawful good" alignments here like in Dungeons and Dragons. Everyone makes their own fate. And that's reason for hope.

                SARAH (V.O.)
        The luxury of hope was given to me by the
        Terminator.  Because if a machine can learn
        the value of human life... maybe we can too.

What exactly changes with this movie? Quite a few things. First of all, Cyberpunk films have become aware of themselves as Cyberpunk films. They know what elements to include, what to avoid, and how to be different. Secondly, we see the notion that man ultimately holds the key to his survival or demise; we can create the cyborgs that will kill us, we can create the corporations that will dominate us, we can elect the President who will destroy our nation, we can fight back against all of those things. No matter how good or bad it gets, it's not our creations that will get us--it's us that will get ourselves. Thirdly, we start to see the rise of the "hacker" as hero. And finally, we see a shift from "man becoming machine" to "machine becoming man." People still turn into cyborgs in some films, but not as much; more often, a machine gains some semblance of humanity, and strives to become more human through the experience (whether literally or figuratively).

These factors, especially the latter, will become quite clear as we take a look at Cyberpunk films of the '90s over the next few weeks and months. In Universal Soldier and The Crow, for instance, we have a man becoming a "machine" becoming a man, all while riding hard upon the back of Cyberpunk stereotypes. In The Professional, we have a "killing machine" who strives to become more human through his encounter with a small child. In the anime classic Ghost in the Shell, we have a cyborg who's trying to find a sense of humanity. In Alien Resurrection, we have a human/alien hybrid Ripley (a cyborg of sorts) who's also trying to find the human she once was. And in The Matrix, the concept of releasing oneself from inside the machine and experiencing the truth of humanity is an obvious way to cap off the decade.

I don't have my heart set on any one specific film for next time, however, so I'm wide open for suggestions. 1992 has a whole slew of potential candidates, including Lawnmower Man, Freejack, Universal Soldier, Alien 3, Sneakers and Split Second. Let me know what you think--as always, I appreciate and look forward to your email replies. And on that note, as Arnie would say, "Hasta La Vista, baby!"